Sia Furler is mad about the fact that she can’t marry her girlfriend in her adopted home state of New York – and she has a distinctly downunder way of expressing it. “It’s totally bum,” she exclaims, in her broad Australian twang. “It’s real bum… that was eloquent!” And then she bursts into a peal of racuous laughter.
It’s a chilly Friday evening in the Big Apple and the 35-year-old jazz-pop singer is fetching eye drops for the dog she’s currently fostering, Princess Chicken. The Pomeranian cross, whom she refers to as “the coolest little person”, is only meant to be staying with her for a few more days – but if she has her way, she says, it could be forever. “And now [Princess Chicken] is listening to me talk about her and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I wanna live with you!’” she giggles.
Along with her girlfriend, fellow musician JD Samson, Furler already shares her home with two dogs, three-legged Lick Lick and Pantera – the latter of whom recently appeared with her in an advert for the Australian branch of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), advocating that people spey and neuter their pets. The chirpy blonde is a fan of PETA but is quick to assert that she isn’t a “militant” animal rights activist like some of its other members. “I’d never throw paint on anyone and I don’t want to cause anyone pain,” she explains.
GLBT rights – particularly the right to marriage – is another issue that’s close to the singer’s heart. “I go on the marches with everybody else,” she says. “I’ve offered my support but I’ve never been called upon. But I do my best.“Even if [Samson and I] got married in, say, Massachusetts, tax-wise we still wouldn’t be equal to hetero couples. It’s insulting, it’s ironic that four years ago when I was dating a dude I had the same rights as everybody else. But now that I’m dating, like, a woman who’s a dude, it’s like suddenly all of my civil rights have disappeared,” she says, with a note of bitterness in her voice.
Furler and the nerdy-cool, gender-bending Samson – of Le Tigre, MEN and The Herms fame – have now been together for approximately three years. Furler credits her relationship with Samson for the more upbeat content of her latest album, 2010’s We Are Born, and aside from her frustration at the discriminatory marriage laws in the state, Furler is enthusiastic about their home in New York. “There’s a lot more acceptance and freedom [in New York],” she says. “It’s a great place to be. And I find many larger cities are, and really many smaller towns too. It’s just individual people. I hate to generalise an entire place. But New York historically… there’s a lot of gayness, a lot of acceptance.”
In 2009, the singer was recognised as one of the 25 most influential gay and lesbian Australians in an annual poll held by the website www.samesame.com.au – but if you think accolades like that go to her head, you’d be mistaken. “Oh, none of that stuff means anything, really,” she says in her slow drawl. “I mean, it’s great, maybe, for the kids, if they like me and then they’re like, ‘Yay, she’s gay, it’s cool to be gay’, that’s all cool… all of those little gay babies that are out there, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m shit’, you know?” She pauses. “But really, I don’t read any press and I don’t read reviews and I try and stay away from all of that stuff, because I think it’s a very dangerous place to be if you believe other people’s projections of who you are.”
If you only had Furler’s public persona to go on, it would be easy to assume that her life was one of carefree frivolity. Her Twitter ‘About Me’ section proclaims that she was “born from the bumhole of a unicorn named Steve”, and the candy-pink cover of We Are Born features the singer with her face daubed with paint and rhinestones, a hairpiece made of pipe cleaners adorning her head. But the singer has had more than her fair share of pain in the past, a fact belied by her more down-tempo songs, such as the smash hit “Breathe Me” and the heart-wrenching “My Love”, from the recently released Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack.?
Furler’s first love was killed when he fell under the wheels of a taxi more than a decade ago. With nowhere else to go, the heartbroken singer moved to London, where she ended up living with 13 of her late boyfriend’s friends in a cramped three-bedroom flat. She spent her time there drinking and taking drugs as a way to deal – or not deal – with her grief until, at a gig in a neighbourhood pub, she was discovered by her first manager, an acquaintance of the trip-hop musical duo Zero 7.
Today, Furler has contributed vocals to three of Zero 7’s albums and released five of her own. We Are Born debuted at number two on the Australian charts, won best pop release and best independent at the 2010 ARIA Music Awards and was nominated for album of the year. Her music has featured on a raft of television shows, including Six Feet Under, Nip/Tuck, The Vampire Diaries and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the film soundtracks for Sex and the City, The Ultimate Gift and Twilight: Eclipse. She has written songs for both Christina Aguilera’s fourth studio album Bionic, and Christina’s recently-released film Burlesque, and has collaborated with Fatboy Slim, Flight of the Conchords and Beck.
She’s come a long way from that grief-stricken London flat, but Furler is the first to admit that she isn’t exactly the most well-adjusted person in the world. Her fame, for example, causes her huge amounts of stress, and she confesses that she maintains a disconnect between her public persona and her day-to-day life in order to stay sane.
“That’s how I deal with it – I just kind of don’t deal with it,” she explains. “[I use] kind of disassociative avoidance techniques… which is probably not the best way to go about things! I hide. I mainly hide and I don’t read any of my press. I don’t go to celebrity parties and I don’t really hang out with celebrities publicly unless I’m working with them.
“I think most importantly I don’t read any of the press or reviews and I don’t watch myself on YouTube. You know, I think that stuff makes you crazy. Because if you believe the good you’ll believe the bad – and there will be bad,” she says matter-of-factly. “People like me, we become artists because we’re looking for outside approval. We’re looking for validation in all the wrong places and it’s incredibly painful when we don’t get the validation that we need or we want. And as we grow we learn that nothing is going to fill the unfillable hole except for some version of faith, I guess, or friendships, like close, real friendships. But strangers clapping at you isn’t really going to do the trick. We have to just learn to do something else. Learn how to give ourselves what we need.”
It took her a very long time to realise these things, she says. “And I’m still hardly there! Occasionally I’ll trip up and I’m like, ‘Boo hoo, nobody likes me’,” she laughs, her voice laden with self-mockery. “But it’s just rarer and rarer.” In 2010, Furler was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that causes hyperthyroidism and a wide range of physical and neurophysical symptoms. Placed on bed rest by her doctor, Furler cancelled a series of live concerts and promotional events and undertook hormone replacement therapy.?
The singer’s initial symptoms caused her a great deal of confusion and added stress. “My hair fell out. I felt like I was having panic attacks nearly all the time, or I was so exhausted from adrenal toxicity that it was like fight or flight. You know when you drink too much coffee without having something to eat, and then later in the afternoon you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus and you’ve been up for three days? That’s kind of how I felt every day,” she explains.
“I had crazy mania, I had shakes… I shook like I had Parkinson’s. I lost a lot of weight. And then I killed my thyroid which is what I guess you do, with part of the treatment, and then the opposite happened. So I got fat, lethargic, depressed, bloated… and now I’m just trying to get my medications all right so I can work again.”
The 2011 Big Day Out festivals – Furler will play Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium on January 21 before hitting Australia – will be her first live concerts in a while. “I did one little thing for the ARIAs and for iTunes, but apart from that [Big Day Out] will be my first. And it’ll be my last for a while, too. Because I’m just burnt out. I’m burnt out,” she says ruefully.
Despite her fatigue, Furler is looking forward to playing the Big Day Out festivals, including one in Adelaide, where she grew up. “[Adelaide] was great, it was weird, it was great! It was a great place to support the expansion of my mind,” she says, in a tone that makes you picture her waving her arms around kookily. “It was easy to do what I did there because it only took three nights of me working in a restaurant for me to subsidise my lifestyle. It was very cheap and I was able to just do art. It was cool.”
And the singer is looking forward to visiting New Zealand for the first time, an experience that she says she’s “really excited” about. “I’ve found a really funny little bed and breakfast to hang out in [in Auckland],” she confides. “Usually they put us in some big hotel and it’s really impersonal, but after you spend 13 years of your life in those you just want to stay in some weirdo’s house, you know?” And she bursts out laughing again.
Her experience with New Zealand to date is limited to a stopover on a flight from Los Angeles to Adelaide, “so I went through the airport, bought a bit of manuka honey and kept going,” she laughs. “And that was when my great big profound experience with New Zealand started and ended – in the airport lounge!
“But you know, I can’t believe it’s so close to home and I’ve never been there, it’s insane to me!” she exclaims. “So it’ll be great fun. It’ll be great fun.”
Sia plays Auckland’s Big Day Out on January 21.
| Anna Loren